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50 years ago: The first crack in the solid South

by James H. Broussard

Although Dwight Eisenhower carried several Southern states for president in 1952 and 1956, there had never been a Republican senator chosen by popular vote in any Southern state until May 27, 1961, when Texas elected John G. Tower to the U.S. Senate to replace Lyndon B. Johnson. 

It was only a fluke occurrence in a low-turnout special election, but it was the first pebble of a political avalanche.  In the decades since, that avalanche has swept one Democrat after another out of Senate and House seats, governorships, and other statewide offices, legislative seats, and county governments.

The foundation for John Tower’s election was actually laid the year before, when he was the sacrificial Republican candidate against Lyndon Johnson himself, who ran both for vice president and senator. 

Playing on current advertising slogans for deodorant and chewing gum, Tower’s campaign told voters, “Don’t be half safe: vote against Johnson twice;” and “Double your pleasure, double your fun--scratch Lyndon twice,” a reference to the existing system of negative voting on paper ballots in which voters crossed off the names of candidates they did not want.

Richard A. Viguerie, who began his long career as a direct-mail guru by managing Tower’s 1960 campaign in Harris County, called the race against Johnson “the first real sign of life for Texas Republicans.”

In losing to Johnson, Tower polled 42% of the statewide vote--more than every previous Republican senate candidate in the 20th century combined.  In Harris County, home to the state’s largest city, Houston, Tower actually beat Johnson, running 10% ahead of his statewide total.

This strong showing made Tower the clear Republican choice for the 1961 special election to fill Johnson’s newly-vacated Senate seat. 

In a field of 71 candidates--including Tower and five serious Democrats--the young Republican easily led the first, free-for-all election on April 4.  He won 31% of the total, far ahead of the leading Democrat, interim senator William Blakley.  Tower again did very well in Harris County, running 15% better than his statewide average and almost tripling the vote of the nearest Democrat.

The runoff on May 27 pitted the solidly conservative Tower against Blakley, who had supported the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960 and called himself a “New Frontier conservative.”  But liberal Democrats saw little to choose between the two and stayed home in great numbers, while conservatives solidified behind Tower, leaving Blakley only the “brass-collar” moderate Democrats of the Lyndon Johnson/Sam Rayburn/Jim Wright stripe. 

On election day, Tower stunned the over-confident Democrats and even some of his own supporters, edging out Blakley by 10,000 votes.  This time the Republican candidate simply ran away with Harris County, winning the state’s largest collection of voters by nearly two-to-one.  In the other three dozen urban counties, Tower also polled a majority, and he did remarkably well for a Republican even in the overwhelmingly Democratic rural counties.

John Tower’s election was certainly the product of unusual and highly unique circumstances, but the mere fact of his victory encouraged other Republicans to run strong races elsewhere in the South in 1962 and later.  By the mid-1960s, this new optimism and energy had begun to show results. 

The story since then has been a continued rise--sometimes gradual, sometimes rapid--for the Republican Party in what had been for nearly 100 years a solidly Democratic South.  This increasing GOP strength has been the major factor in shifting the national political balance from a seemingly perpetual Democratic edge beginning in the 1930s to the evenly balanced party system that took shape after the 1980s.

And it all started 50 years ago in Texas.

Dr. James H. Broussard teaches history at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.  His book on the election of John Tower in 1961 is forthcoming.

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